photographs and text by Brian Willson

On my first full spring in Maine years ago—I’ve surely told this story before—I was slowly sneaking up on a booming grouse in hopes of witnessing what I’d heard was a remarkable spring display. I’d heard it booming just over a wooded rise and had sunk to my belly on the leafy forest floor. I’d wait several seconds, then creep a few feet, wait, creep, repeat. After about twenty minutes of this, when my eyes finally cleared the rise, I was dismayed to see a large fallen spruce between the partridge and me. As I lay there, fully focused on the grouse, a snowshoe hare loped up from my right and stood just a few feet from me, sniffing the air, oblivious. Immediately, my full attention turned to the rabbit, which I watched lope obliviously away.

02 June 2012.
Big rain in the forecast, so Jack and I hiked Beech Hill early. Mostly overcast, with an ominous, blustery breeze. Heard many birds singing, saw a few. I remembered to slow at all the muddy places in case of a woodcock, but no woodcock appeared. At the edge of the upper fields, I heard the faint peeping of an alder flycatcher that I know is nesting at a curve in the trail and decided to go slowly in hopes of a photo. Walked in slow motion, keeping Jack behind me—it’s a familiar routine to both of us at this point—until we rounded a leafy young tree. I could hear the flycatcher still but couldn’t find it in the next tree, so I figured it sat in a third tree beyond, and we continued our slow-motion stalk to the far side of the second tree then stopped. Only vaguely did I hear a yellowthroat singing behind us and the notes of a towhee far ahead of us and crows cawing in the distance, because my attention was fixed to the intermittent peeps of bird in front of us, just there, somewhere.

Abruptly, from some brush just to our left, there came a little burst of low squawks—not a familiar sound at all. My full attention turned. The bird made no further sound. Cuckoo, was my first thought. Or could it have been a turkey hen calling to her chicks? We waited a while, but the source of the squawks stayed hidden. After a minute or so, the flycatcher moved on, so we did, too.

Lots of redstarts on the hill this year. Plenty of the usual warblers, thrushes, and sparrows. Coming down the open trail, as I stood scanning the grass for the savannah sparrow directing tiny, angry chips at us, I heard the unmistakable voice of a bluebird, and my attention turned to the little birches around us. Then I saw the bluebird flying high over the hill, southbound.

Returning around the corner where I’d stalked the flycatcher earlier, we slowed in case it might present itself, or perhaps the yellow warbler I heard singing nearby. I’d assumed whatever had made the squawk was long gone—well, so much for assumptions. Because a long, sleek bird leapt suddenly out of the brush across the trail and lit in a shady branch of a little small tree. Sure enough, it was a black-billed cuckoo. First-of-year bird for me. And now I’ve added another vocalization to the three or four I already know cuckoos are prone to.

That’s one of the small dependable joys of birding—and life generally. You’re looking for one thing and end up finding another.

Beech Hill List
On 02 June 2012, beginning at 9:30 a.m., I hiked all trails.

1. Ovenbird (v)
2. Red-eyed vireo (v)
3. Common yellowthroat*
4. Chestnut-sided warbler
5. Rose-breasted grosbeak (v)
6. Alder flycatcher (v)
7. Veery (v)
8. Eastern towhee
9. American redstart
10. Black-and-white warbler (v)
11. Yellow warbler
12. Gray catbird (v)
13. Song sparrow
14. American robin* (v)
15. Blue jay
16. Nashville warbler (v)
17. Black-billed cuckoo‡
18. Black-throated green warbler (v)
19. Cedar waxwing (v)
20. Eastern phoebe
21. Savannah sparrow
22. Field sparrow (v)
23. American crow* (v)
24. Eastern bluebird
25. American goldfinch*
26. Tufted titmouse
27. Least flycatcher (v)
28. Purple finch (v)
29. Northern flicker
30. Hermit thrush (v)
31. Eastern wood-pewee (v)
32. Hairy woodpecker (drumming)
32. Black-capped chickadee (v)


33. House finch (v)
34. Herring gull
35. Mallard
36. Mourning dove
37. Common grackle

v = Voice only
*Also elsewhere
‡First-of-year bird